Wed, Jan 17, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Pakistani forces strike suspected al-Qaeda camps

RESURGENCEOfficials said they hit the hideouts of `foreign terrorists and local facilitators,' although tribesmen said there were no militants in the vicinity


Striking at dawn, Pakistani helicopter gunships destroyed three suspected al-Qaeda hideouts yesterday in a tribal region bordering Afghanistan, killing up to 30 militants, the military said.

Officials said the precision strike targeted a complex in South Waziristan where local and foreign extremists had been training.

The strike came as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Afghanistan to assess for himself the scale of operations against a Taliban resurgence in the country, often over the porous border from Pakistan.

Spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said helicopters attacked the camps after reports of 25 to 30 local and foreign militants there.

"I can't give you the exact number of casualties, but most of them were believed killed," Shaukat told reporters, adding that three of the five camps were destroyed.

He said the camps had been under surveillance for days before the operation was carried out at 6:55am yesterday morning.

A military statement said the "foreign terrorists and local facilitators" were occupying a complex of five camps in the mountain forest of Zamazola, 70km north of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan region.

It is opposite Barmal district in the Afghan province of Paktika.

"Their activities were under surveillance for the past few days and upon confirmation, this hideout was busted ... through a precision strike in which gunship helicopters also participated," it said.

A security official said that seven helicopters attacked the compound, which was used as a "training camp."

However, local tribesman Wali Mohammad told reporters that it was a forest and people were cutting wood.

"There was no militant activity in the area," he added.

Residents said local tribes had so far recovered 10 bodies from the debris. Two of them were identified as local.

Other bodies were charred beyond recognition, they added, while the search for the rest was continuing.

Afghanistan frequently accuses Pakistan of turning a blind eye to militant training camps and support. Islamabad denies the charge, saying the roots of the problem lie inside Afghanistan.

Gates, who was due later Tuesday to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has expressed concern that the Taliban revival in southern Afghanistan and the slow pace of reforms and economic reconstruction is threatening gains made since the Taliban militia was ousted in December 2001.

Last week, US intelligence director John Negroponte said that top al-Qaeda leaders who had been harbored by the Taliban had now found "secure hideouts" in Pakistan from where they were regrouping.

Pakistan, a key US ally, has strongly rejected the complaint, but admitted it is struggling to stop insurgents moving back and forth across the border.

Last week, Afghan and NATO-led forces killed up to 150 insurgents who had been spotted infiltrating into Paktika province from Pakistan. The Islamabad government has deployed some 80,000 troops along the Afghan border to hunt down al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

In the past five years Pakistani forces have launched a wave of operations throughout the tribal zones in which more than 1,000 militants and 600 troops are said to have died.

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